Is there anything better than an empty track with a light mist hanging right at shoulder level? I submit that there is not. I save the track for very particular occasions: it is an atmosphere that is only for doing Serious Business. Pace workouts and speed tests, when I need unbroken concentration and precision. I love exploring the roads, finding new routes, and feeling like I am on a new adventure every day, but sometimes the absolute certainty and predictability that the track provides is what is called for. No hills, no traffic lights, no sharp turns, nothing to distract me from the work. Just looking at it from the street fills me with anticipation. This is going to burn. That burn, though part of me fears it, makes me feel like I belong on the track.
I once tried to join a running club that practiced together Monday nights at the MIT track. I showed up for about four weeks in a row, unwilling to admit to myself how I dreaded it, before finally quitting. It was the summer between my 2nd and 3rd year of graduate school, and I was studying for my general exams, getting ready to teach Italian to college students for the first time, and teaching a full-time summer ESL course to make extra money. I was also designing a new website for a general education course I had been asked to teach, and I had been granted special permission by the dean to teach two courses instead of one during my first semester as a teaching fellow. I was driving myself hard in every direction simultaneously, and I was unsatisfied with my performance, especially in running. The previous year, I had nearly dropped out of the Marine Corps Marathon due to an injury, and the mental and physical comeback from that had been halting and agonizingly slow. I was a less fit, more worried runner than before, and I was fighting to feel like I still deserved to be doing it at all.
It made sense to me, then, that what I needed to do to get faster and fitter was join a track club and push myself harder. The me that I was in my 20s subscribed to this 100%. If I wasn’t getting the results I wanted in something, it was probably because I wasn’t suffering enough. The group workouts seemed like they would deliver all the things that I thought could make me better: they would make me accountable, through a sense of commitment and a fear of people thinking I was lazy if I didn’t run as hard as possible. I knew I would be the slowest one out there, and I was fine with that, as long as I could demonstrate that I knew I was slow and that I was trying really hard to be faster.
The thing is that driving yourself by making yourself so afraid of failure that you can’t stop is not terribly sustainable. I would finish teaching at 6 PM, change clothes in the bathroom of the English school where I worked, and walk the two miles to the track for practice every Monday night, lugging all my stuff. At 7 PM, the warmup would begin, and the 20 or so runners in the group would take off down Vassar Street to the river. If I had to guess, I would say that they were running no slower than a 8- or 9-minute-per-mile pace. I had no business then and I would have no business now warming up at a 9-minute pace. But I was there to work hard, right? I trailed the pack, but wouldn’t let myself slow down enough to lose sight of them. Knowing now what an actual warmup is supposed to feel like, I can’t help laughing at the 2011 me, panting my way back to the track to rejoin the group “warmed up” and ready to work. I might have been totally winded and worn out already, but I had saved face by not letting the second-to-last runner get more than 10 paces ahead of me!
The workout would begin; half- and full-marathon-distance people doing 800s or mile repeats at varying levels of effort, 5K and 10K people doing shorter bursts of various kinds. I had, at that time, only two levels of effort that I could consciously muster: sprinting and not-sprinting. Not-sprinting was never going to cut it for track sessions, so I was basically going all out at all times, then recovering just enough to go all out again. I had no idea how fast I was actually going or whether I was improving. All I knew was that after my rushed cooldown on the track, I could barely muster the hustle to catch the last bus to Watertown. (after which I had another 10-minute walk home from the bus stop). I was completely, totally drained, and yet after having dinner at 9:30 PM I was also completely unable to sleep.
I started to dread everything about this weekly ritual. The hassle involved, the shitty night of tossing and turning that always followed, the burning that never let up. But what really got to me was that I knew I would show up and feel like an impostor. All I saw was the chasm between me and all the other athletes in the group. How much faster than me they were wasn’t the issue (it was enough that it had become irrelevant) but it was the easy nature of their demeanor in practice, the admiring looks they got from the coach, the way they seemed to be in the right place and doing the right thing. The coach tolerated my showing up with a barely-suppressed weariness that I desperately wanted to dispel. See me, I silently begged, I promise I am giving everything I have. The thing that hurt the most about recognizing that I had to stop doing this was knowing that by quitting, I would confirm what he had likely thought of me all along.
Two years ago, I visited the MIT track for the first time since 2011, for a workout my current coach likes to call the Enhanced Anaerobic Threshold. I warmed up along the same route as the track club used to, but at an actual warmup pace, and then I entered the track and the hard work began. As I completed the workout – and it is one that will make you question all your life choices – the memories of the group runs came back to me as if from another dimension; I saw that they were there, but they had no relevance to what I was doing. It was 2016, this was my track, and I had work to do. I belonged again, and I couldn’t wait to tell my coach. Her response: “You're only as useless as you allow others to make you believe. They are wrong. I am not. I was with the wrong group before, and so were you. #coachedandloved.”